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Cuban Blend

Composer Tania Leon brings influence of homeland to Musics Alive! festival.


In the scheme of things, the New West Symphony's ongoing spring chamber music project known as "Musics Alive!" exists on the periphery of its regular concert schedule. Often, the program isn't settled on until late in the season, and the fare isn't for people with Beethoven on the brain.

Over the past eight years, though, the series--which celebrates the sounds of contemporary composers and world music--has become something of a focal point in terms of refreshing, intriguing musical discourse in Ventura County. Its importance in the scheme of ongoing local musical culture is indisputable.

This weekend brings "Musics Alive 2000," with an emphasis on music from Spain and Cuba.

The mini-festival kicks off tonight with "Flamenco Party!" at the Pierpont Inn, featuring Yaelisa and the Solera Flamenco Dance Company. The troupe will perform again, this time for free, at Plaza Park at noon Saturday.

But at the main events of the weekend--concerts on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon--the subject is the impact of Spanish and Cuban influence on the current musical scene.

The living-composer component this year is especially intriguing in that both the racial and gender barriers are broken: Tania Leon is a Cuban-born woman of increasing renown, whose music has become a vital link between her heritage and the classical culture at large.

Before heading west to Ventura, Leon traveled this week to various East Coast colleges, where her music was performed and studied.

Leon was born in Havana in 1943; her story is common among composers reared in cultures outside the conventional classical realm. Leon's saga is that of a composer who traveled away from her native country and its cultural life, then found her way home again, at least in terms of artistic expression.

She traveled to the United States in 1968 and became the musical director of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Leon then immersed herself in European and North American musical traditions, veering away from her Cuban heritage.

But when she returned to Cuba, a major attitude shift began. As Leon recalls, "it was 12 years before I returned to my country of origin. Of course it was significant, but more so was when my father died in 1980, within a year of my return. This made a big impact."


In the music Leon has made since that time, you can easily detect a happy melding of cultures, with rhythmic rigor that seems to blend the influence of, say, Stravinsky with Afro-Cuban pulsations.

She isn't, however, necessarily intending such a synthesis in her music.

"I am touched by all of musical experiences," she said. "When I translate my ideas into sound, it is not consciously thinking of all these elements."

The showcase work on Saturday night's concert will be "Indigena," a piece for chamber ensemble, with a feisty yet brainy personality. As she explains, "it is dedicated to my nephew Alain. To me, it is his character. He is one of the most genuine people I know."

Beyond the example of her own creative fruits, Leon has turned her attention to bringing light to other music from Cuba and Latin America.

One of the best-known Cuban composers at present is Leo Brouwer, whose "Concierto elegiaco," featuring guitarist Randy Pile, will also be heard Saturday.

"There are many composers of Cuban origin, inside and outside of Cuba," Leon said. "I hope with more communication, people will be able to get to know composers of many origins--Cuban and otherwise."

One forum for doing so is a New York-based festival she co-directs, called "Sonidos de las Americas."

"We were able to do in-depth research on many Latin-American composers," said Leon. "The festival ended last year with the Cuban composers. The intent of this festival was to introduce composers of Latin America and their music to the audiences here in the States."


Leon's music, a good sampling of which can be heard on the CRI recording "Indigena," has given her a widening scope of influence, a rare visibility for a living composer. Her career, though, has hardly been the result of careful planning or calculation.

"I began my career as a pianist and through various twists and turns, I am where I am now," she said. "I never dreamed I was going to be doing what I am doing now."

Her flair for piano writing will be on display Sunday, when the noted piano duo of Vicki Ray and Gloria Cheng perform "Paisanos Semos!" along with Gershwin's "Cuban Overture," Copland's "Danza Cubana" and "La Fuente Infinita," by Cuban-cum-Los Angeles composer Aurelio de la Vega.

Ray, as it turns out, will be heading up to Ventura County again in the next few months. She'll perform Schubert's song cycle, "Die Winterreise," with tenor Jonathan Mack at this May's Ventura Chamber Music Festival. This will be an encore of sorts, a logical extension of their performance of Schubert's "Der Schoene Mullerin" at the festival a few years ago.

"Things like that keep me sane," she said of the Schubert work.

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